Imagine a better future for 872 St. Louis city schoolchildren.
Closing a school is difficult on children and parents. So there are tough days ahead for the 872 children who now attend the Imagine Academy of Academic Success and the Imagine Academy of Cultural Arts. But if ever closing a school were a good thing, this is it.
The Imagine schools — there are four others in the city, and they should be well on their way to closure, too — have been a fundamental failure. The blame should be spread broadly.
The for-profit company always was on the lookout for a quick buck, seemingly focused more on flipping property than educating children. The charter's sponsor waited too long to pay attention. Conservative state lawmakers, intent on pushing competition for public schools in any way possible, ignored pleas to make sure that charter schools were accountable.
The Imagine schools effort started with well-meaning people trying to create new opportunity for children who need hope. Instead, the kids found themselves stuck in schools that were, by most objective standards, performing worse than the public schools the students fled.
What now? How can this community create the optimistic future once imagined by those 872 kids left behind? How many more years will we let this happen? How many generations of children, mostly poor, mostly African-American, will we fail by not providing the fundamental opportunity for a quality education?
Anger rises up like bile when contemplating the real damage done to families by putting profits above progress. Anger alone doesn't solve problems, but it might inspire passion. It might kick-start a community into action. For there ever to be hope that St. Louis will solve its problem with struggling schools, a problem that other big cities have faced and fixed, there must be a combination of urgency and optimism.
St. Louis can move the needle of progress by focusing not on the sheer size of the problem, but on 872 children with immediate needs.
Let's start with this: Those public schools the children left in the first place are getting better. Under the leadership of Superintendent Kelvin Adams and the state-appointed Special Administrative Board, the St. Louis Public Schools are making slow but steady progress in a variety of areas, including improving test scores and stabilizing financing. The schools still aren't at the level necessary for state accreditation, but the arc of progress now bends in the right direction.
In the most recent round of Missouri Assessment Program testing, 84 percent of St. Louis Public Schools improved in at least one subject. And 31 percent of students passed the tests, up from 28 percent a year ago. These are abysmal numbers, but they're better than any of the city charter schools run by Imagine.
There is good news in that other charter schools, nonprofits with a more accountable model, are sprouting in the city. The nationally recognized KIPP charter schools see St. Louis as a key growth area. KIPP focuses on a model that identifies and trains top quality school leaders and gives students the tools they need to succeed, in part by installing a more rigorous and longer school day.
KIPP schools are showing increased test scores in several cities. In some communities, they compete with public schools; in other places they cooperate. What's key, in making a comparison to Imagine's failed model, is that KIPP operates like an open book, sharing its model with public school leaders, seeking to lift all boats in the tide of urban need.
Several Catholic schools in St. Louis also are finding success with a KIPP-like model offered by Access Academies, another nonprofit that focuses on accountability, parental involvement and a longer school day.
Success is achieved when "every child in the city has access to a high-performing school," KIPP CEO Richard Barth told us on a recent visit to St. Louis. "In one decade, you can move this."
In 10 years, the youngest of those 872 children who have been effectively abandoned by the two failed Imagine schools will be in high school. Their success will be determined by how much progress the city of St. Louis makes improving all of its schools — public, charter and parochial — between now and then.
Charters are not, and never were intended to be, a cure-all. They are one of many tools intended to help give students and parents options. None of those options work without the entire system of parents, elected officials and community leaders working together.
St. Louis failed miserably in allowing Imagine and Paideia Academy and other poorly performing charters to operate too long without proving that they were worth the effort.
For the city to solve its preeminent problem — the lack of flourishing public schools — it must adopt a laser-like focus on children, including the 872 students who next fall will need a new place to learn.
In January, state lawmakers again will be faced with the seemingly impossible task of fulfilling a court order — known as the Turner decision — that requires school districts to accept students from unaccredited districts in the same or adjacent counties, including St. Louis.
To date, the Legislature has punted on the issue because it's impossible to envision the chaos that would result from several thousand students switching schools overnight.
Let's forget the massive macro picture and focus on the micro. Focus on those 872 students who need a school, students who can't possibly be left behind for one more year of their young lives.
Give those 872 children hope, accountability and commitment.
It's a start.